The unfulfilled Ambition of an Edo Police Chief Inspector

「待っていたぞっ、火付盗賊改メ、長谷川平蔵じゃ!」・’I have been waiting for you! This is chief inspector of the arson and robbery department, Hasegawa Heizou – freeze!’, he proclaims in typical manner as he catches criminals red-handed on the crime scene. He wears his signature soldier helmet of authorized rank, the Jingasa (陣笠・じんがさ) and in his hand he thrusts out a short, metallic truncheon, called a Jitte (十手・じって, usually of metal with a hook on the side to ward off sword attacks). Nothing escapes his sharp sight and what he aimed for, he will not let of the hook again – watch out you villains out there!

After my first stint into Japanese history with the article about the Shimabara Rebellion, this article I like to devote to Hasegawa Nobutame (長谷川宣以・はせがわのぶため; 1745-1795), a historic figure of the same era, the Edo Period (江戸・えど; 1603-1868). The name Hasegawa Nobutame might not ring many bells because in Japan he is more commonly known by the name of Hasegawa Heizou (長谷川平蔵・はせがわへいぞう), or his alias Onihei (鬼平・おにへい).


If one is to watch television, switching through the different channels or going through the shelves in bookstores in Japan, one is bound to bump into ‘Heizou the Demon’ (translation for ‘Onihei’), who is a prominent character in many period dramas, known as Jjidaigeki (時代劇・じだいげき), movies, anime, theater plays, literary works as well as a manga comic series that go by the name of Onihei Hankachou (鬼平犯科帳・おにへいはんかちょう; Onihei’s Crime Reports).

The stories of the fictionalized protagonist Onihei, the head of a samurai elite police force against arson and robbery set in the Edo period, have long been cherished by Japanese readers since the first publication in 1967 of the pen of Ikenami Shoutarou (池波正太郎・いけなみしょうたろう) a master of historical novels. 50 years after the release of the serialized novel, Onihei’s crime records still put the audience under a spell and into an era long past. The fictional Heizou that has been impersonated by many famous actors of the Japanese film and Kabuki (歌舞伎・かぶき; Japanese classical theater drama) scene, is often romanticized as a man with a taste for exquisite tobacco and a weakness for fine foods. A true gourmet not leaving out any opportunity to indulge in various luscious local specialties that the kitchens of Edo had to offer.

While most of these are creations by Ikenami’s imaginative mind, Nobutame’s actual deeds however, of which there are not few remarkable ones, make him well a cut above the rest of the people of his time and trade. But who was that person really, who inspired Ikenami for his best-selling detective stories? – A roughneck in his youth, feared by the villain, despised by peers and superiors alike when in office, but respected and loved by the towns people throughout life and beyond, let’s open up the file of this adored hero!

Onihei, Hasegawa Heizou (most famously played by Nakamura Kichiemon (中村  吉右衛門・なかむら きちえもん; actor and kabuki performer as well as a Living National Treasure; front right in the image) with his band helpers, when times are less stormy, for a good meal never be left out in any Japanese drama. Scenes familiar with the audience, giving the show a homey, romantic atmosphere. Another reason to make the series attractive to me personally, is the lady there in the back of Onihei. Darling, Kaji Meiko (梶  芽衣子・かじ  めいこ), of whom I translated two songs on my blog so far. In the Hankachou series she plays a private informant to Onihei.

Early Years

Hasegawa Nobutame was born during the reign of the 9th Shogun Tokugawa Ieshige (徳川家重・とくがわいえしげ; 1712-1761) as the oldest son of Hasegawa Nobuo (長谷川信雄・はせがわのぶお), a Hatamoto (旗本・はたもと; shogunal vassal) with 400 Koku (石・こく; annual income for samurai), who once made himself a name as the head inspector of the same special police, by catching the fire devil, who caused the outbreak of The Great Meiwa Fire (明和の大火・めいわのたいか) in 1772. The customary ceremonial rite to obtain the right of succession for the clan household, the Omemie no Shiki (御目見得の式・おめみえのしき; ceremony with direct audience to the shogun) Nobutame received comparatively late with 23, a good 10 year later than usual. After father Nobuo’s sudden death in 1773, he was to take over the headship of the Hasegawa family at the age of 28.

The Onihei Hankachou novels dramatize how young Tetsusaburou (鉄三郎・てつさぶろう; Nobutame’s childhood name), flies out the mansion after another verbal fight with his stepmother and gives himself into a debaucherous life. Surrounded by bad company, he would roam the streets in the neighborhood and red light districts being up to no good, bringing him the nickname Honjo no Tetsu (本所の銕・ほんじょのてつ; The Tetsu of Honjo) under which he was feared together with his band of local ruffians.

However, in reality it’s said that only after his return from Kyoto, where his father had served as the East town magistrate, he started to indulge into pleasures and to waste the household savings in boredom while in wait for his next official appointment by the shogunate. One could hypothesize his father’s unexpected death knocked him off track, but be it as it may, fact is that during a period of 7 months he had lots of time to spare. It’s assumed that it was in this phase of life he peeked into Edo’s underworld and built up hi back-street relationships. Yet, those profligate experiences and insights into the villains’ trade should become invaluably important for his later career as chief inspector.

Despite the slow start he might had as a person of his stand, after being appointed to his new role in the guards for the quarters of the shogunal heirs, his career started to develop in favorable tracks and he run through the various military ranks in the bakufu system until he was nominated chief inspector of the special police for investigating difficult crimes in 1787 at the age of 42.

First he was installed just on temporary basis, but he would return the following year in 1788 and from then on, Hasegawa Nobutame shall for many years supervise the Hitsuketouzoku Aratamekata (火付盗賊改方・ひつけとうぞくあらためかた; police department concerned with serious arson and armed robbery crime cases), a special police corps with combined jurisdiction over arson and robbery, with which he achieved notable successes in combating crime. During his office he also established the for the time ground-breaking Ninsokuyoseba (人足寄場・にんそくよせば), a rehabilitation and labor camp, as we know it in similar fashion today to reform criminals.

Special Police Force for Arson and Robbery

The unit of the Hitsuketozouku Aratame was always chosen from the shogun’s imperial guard garrison, the Osakitegumi (御先手組・おさきてぐみ; standing army, one of the military organizations within the Tokugawa army, responsible to maintenance of public order in the castle and surrounding town), and deployed whenever the ways of the world were at risk beneath the Castle of Edo (江戸城・えどじょう; residence of the shogun), with crime being rampart, the outbreak of large fires, floods or severe famines as they occurred during the period.

For instance, The Great Fire of Meireiki (明暦の大火・めいれきのたいか) that wiped out vast parts of Edo in 1657, made the need of such a striking force imminent. Not only did crime surge, but also gangs became more violent being armed to the teeth. The regular police forces from the Machi Bugyou (町奉行・まちぶぎょう; town magistrate, administrational office for civil matters) were insufficiently equipped against such groups and not able to hold in check the prevalent disorder. It was therefore the main task of this special police to immediately restore the public order, which meant that they would not hesitate to draw their swords to achieve that goal. The sphere of operation, however, was not limited to the capital of Edo alone, but expanded to the Kanhasshuu (関八州・かんはっしゅう; eight provinces of the Tokugawa in the Kanto region) and also included the crackdown of gambling.

Different from the town magistrate, who took seat in a designated goverment office, the headquarters of the special police department were usually set up at the private residence of the head inspector. This entailed personal investment into alternation of the residence, therefore wealthy vassals of usually 1500 koku stipends and above were appointed. The Hasgawa were in this sense an exception with just 400 koku, which they made up for with their long-standing services to the shogunal family.

The unit of the Hitsuketouzoku Aratame consisted commonly of 5-10 Yoriki (与力・よりき; rank of police captain in the feudal era occupied by samurai of higher class), 30-50 Doshin (同心・どうしん; samurai of lower status and rank below the yoriki, constable/regular policeman) and a network of secret/private policemen, called Okappiki (岡っ引き・おかっぴき; non-samurai police assistants) or Goyokiki (御用聞き・ごようきき; also non-samurai police assistants) that were once delinquents themselves. Usually the department was supervised by one chief inspector, however, when the public order was particularly precarious and during the winter months, when fires most occurred, a second one was added for assistance on temporary assignment.

Depending on the type of criminals and offenses at hand, the Hitsuketouzoku Aratame had to turn over suspects to higher instance because it was limited in its right of deciding on own judgement. However, since the forces for arson and rubbery dealt with the vilest of criminals, they seemed to have their own ways of obtaining vital intelligence on gang activities and hideouts. Technically not allowed to punish above flogging, records suggest they employed harsh torture methods on suspects to squeeze out wanted information.

At some points in the history of the department, it is said to have even gone out of hand. No matter the status, anyone, who looked the slightest suspicious in the eyes of the police was randomly arrested and, if deemed necessary, executed without proper investigations. Such malady led to temporary abolition of the unit in 1699, but then was resumed after the famous vendetta of the 47 Rounin (四十七士・しじゅうしちし) in 1702, the Chuushingura (忠臣蔵・ちゅうしんぐら; fictionalized accounts in literature and kabuki) or as it is historically referred to, the Akou Incident (赤穂事件・あこうじけん; 47 retainers avenging their lords death).

Later Years

‘Onihei’ seemed to be the perfect candidate for this dirty work of capturing and punishing the bad, given his background. That he was an able man should soon be demonstrated, by him arresting the miscreants of Edo in droves. Nobutame, in younger years rubbing shoulders with the scoundrels himself, knew quite clearly about their thinking and habits, thus excelling in hauling out information from the streets to use it efficiently against the villains. One is inclined to say, best to set a snake to catch a snake, or in this case a villain to apprehend another.

One of his outstanding track records that brought him instant reputation among the commoners, was the wholesale arrest of a gang led by Shintou Tokujiro (真刀徳次郎・しんとうとくじろう) that gaudily rampaged a number of neighboring provinces. No less significant was his feat in the arrest of the phantom thief Aoikozou (葵小僧・あおいこぞう; also known by the name Daimatsugoro), who repeatedly plundered and raped in several residences in the heart of the city during the course of one night. In consideration of the victims and without consulting with the elderly council of the shogun, Nobutame made a sensational act in giving Aoikozo an unprecedented short shrift. Aoikozo was decapitated without being taken to protocol only 10 days after his capture.

Other prominent names of the underworld would join the list one after another and be brought before justice in similar fashion. His unusual high success rate with arrests seems indeed to be tightly connected to him leveraging those experiences from his dissolute years when frequenting the neighborhoods of ill repute and the personal relationships he knitted among the bad guys. Another factor that is believed to have led to his notable successes, is the official use of a private spy network with the Okappiki, the Goyokiki and the hired thief takers, the Meakashi (目明し・めあかし), which all consisted of reformed criminals.

Reform and Labor Camp

‘Heizou the Demon’, as he was feared by criminals, who he effectively fought over the years, his most recognizable deed represents the establishment and management of the in the entry mentioned reformation and labor camp, the Ninsokuyoseba on Iishikawa Island (石川島・いしかわじま) of the shores in the bay of Edo. Not only did he draft and oversee the constructions, he should remain the only chief inspector to personally control events in the reformatory because after his retirement, a so called Yoseba Bugyou (寄場奉行・よせばぶぎょう; labor camp magistrate under the competence of the town magistrate) would manage the facilities as a full-time position.

On the right side an old map showing the location of Ishikawa Island in the bay of Edo. Next to it and famously depicted in the 36 Views of Mount Fuji (富嶽三十六景・ふがくさんじゅうろっけい) by renowned woodblock print artist Hokusai Katsushika (葛飾北斎・かつしかほくさい), the Tsukuda Island print. Originally, the two islands were one, but were separated as the reformatory went into construction.

As a background for this unprecedented project was the Great Tenmei Famine (天明の大飢饉・てんめいのだいききん; occuring from 1782-88), when crowds of refugees streamed into Edo and filled the streets. Many collapsed due to shortage of aid, abandoned children and criminals were numerous throughout the city. The correctional facilities therefore were also meant as an emergency reception camp in times of need. A pool accommodating vagrants, drifters and minor criminals to instruct them in the ways of works with the aim to prevent them from lapsing back into crime and to give them perspectives after their release back into society.

In the labor and rehabilitation camp, all kinds of craftsmanship were practiced, like paper making, roof thatching, shredding tobacco leaves, forging, carpeting and commodities such as straw cords and sandals, footwear for horses, charcoal briquettes, barrels and buckets were produced. The maximum detainment was 3 years and the tools as well as the accumulated small change they received for the work, the inmates were allowed to take with them.

Insurmountable Rival

As groundbreaking the establishment of such a facility was, as reckless was its realization. Hasegawa Nobutame, although revered by the towns people, his practices and demeanor often found opposition with peers and supervisors alike, in particular by the regent of the time, the noble parvenu, Matsudaira Sadanobu (松平定信・まつだいらさだのぶ; 1759-1829), chief senior councilor of the Council of Elders, known as the Roujuu (老中・ろうじゅう; one of the highest-ranking government posts under the Tokugawa shogunate serving as adviser to the shogun). This individual should further be involved in the implementation of a series of conservative measures by the bakufu government to tackle financial misery, the third of four major reforms during the Edo period, recorded as the Kansei Kaikaku (寛政の改革・かんせいのかいかく; The Kansei Reforms, in the years 1787-93).

It’s definitely better to have friends rather than enemies in high places. The clean-handed Matsudaira Sadanobu, who had a taste for the refined and studies, and the broad-minded enough to associate with various types of people Hasegawa Nobutame, were said to have been like cat and dog.

Sadanobou, who was a relative to the reigning Tokugawa shogun, was not particularly favorable towards Nobutame’s unconventional conducts and didn’t hesitate to lay stones into Heizou’s way. For example, he was tightfisted with investment towards the constructions of the Ninsokuyoseba. The facilities probably would have never become for what they are recognized today, if the sly fox Nobutame didn’t resort to a method to raise additional funds that Matsudaira Sadanobu never had foreseen. What he did, is to callously speculated the allowance at the Zenisouba (銭相場・ぜんいそうば), venues to exchange the various coins that existed at the time, including copper, gold and silver coins. However, when Sadanobu became wind of the shrewdness, the constructions were mainly finished, with the Ninsokuyoseba literally on safe shores.

Unfulfilled Ambition and ending Years

Naturally this ill relationship between the two, with Nobutame on the shorter end of the stick, he found himself unable to have his way with his further career, didn’t he aspire less than to step into his father’s footsteps in being promoted into the prestigious position of town magistrate. An ambition that shall remain unfulfilled for the rest of his life as Sadanobu, although recognizing Onihei’s accomplishments as chief inspector, he kept his finger tightly on the spot.

In the end Nobutame might had to give in and lost this political flexing of muscles with his supervisor, but his accurate and just way of carrying out his duty, earned him the reverence of the people of Edo, and if you want the people of present Japan as his legend lives on in the detective stories of late Ikenami Shoutarou. Three months after he had been relieved from his duties in the service of the Hitsuketouzoku Aratamekata, which he performed for eight consecutive years (the longest service recorded for this position), Hasegawa Nobutame passed away in 1795, age 50.

His faith actually reminds me on an excellent book that I read years ago during the first month of my stay in Japan. For people that are interested in Japanese history and aspects of the Japanese mindset, I can’t recommend highly enough the book The Nobility of Failure by British Author Ivan Morris. It contains the stories of 9 personalities in Japanese history, starting in the year 72 with Yamato Takeru (ヤマトタケル; until 114, legendary prince of the Yamato dynasty) and ends with Saigo Takamori (西郷隆盛・さいごたかもり; leader of the Satsuma Rebellion and often described the last samurai), who lived from 1828-77. Among the stories you will also find Amakusa Shirou (天草四郎・あまくさしろう; designated leader of the Shimabara Rebellion in the years 1637-38), who I talk about in the Shimabara article.

From a Western point of view, all those figures had in common that they failed their respective struggles against whomever they went up against. They were doomed from the start in their undertaking, but knowingly they accepted their faith – death, ritual suicide, expulsion – not backing down from the abject defeat they inevitable faced. Contrary to Western heroes however, in Japanese society, those ‘failed heroes’ are regarded higher than the their victorious antagonists.

Hasegawa Nobutame is for me yet another example of that line. He might not have given his life for a certain cause, but accepting is invidious and futile lot, he diligently went on to fulfill his duty in the name of justice and for the safety of the public as chief inspector until his very last day in service. As our days show, he too, shall clearly win over his defeater Sadanobu in the end for the favor of the Japanese people.

Final Word

Hasegawa Nobutame, or Onihei if you want, was a fortunate acquaintance for me during the time I stayed in Japan. For years I meant to write something about him, but it had to wait until now. I am glad and at ease with myself now that I could finally conduct this self-study.

As I ever more immersed in the world of esteemed inspector Hasegawa Heizou, I found myself on a journey of exploration of the time as the story brims with interesting detail at every corner. In the knowledge that I have neglected my other obligations for this project, it feels greatly rewarding to have completed this piece of work and I hope that it is interesting to readers of this blog.


You might also be interested in the following article(s)/page(s):

Article Guide:

  • Words in orange color underlined, link to other articles on MyLittle Dejima
  • Words in burnt orange color underlined, link to external references
  • Words in simple bold, titles and article relevant information without external reference
  • For Japanese related words Hiragana (ひらがな), Katakana (カタカナ) and Kanji (漢字) are added for those interested in Japanese terminology

Edition History: 

  • First version: release; January 8th, 2017
  • Second version: paragraph alignment + minor editing; November 30th, 2017

©MyLittle Dejima

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